Open Skies, Game Theory, and what’s next for treaties

The OC-135, the (very old) airplane the US uses for OPEN SKIES flights, from Wikipedia

Recently President Trump pulled the United States out of the Open Skies Treaties, continuing his push of leaving treaties he feels aren’t useful. Given that we’ve pulled out of the INF Treaty, redone NAFTA, and scrapped a few other treaties (like the JCPOA), are we closer to war, and what treaty is next on the chopping block?

Trump renegotiating deals, and in some cases leaving them altogether, isn’t a surprise. A quick read of his book The Art of the Deal, or a study of his real estate deals, or just watching a few episodes of The Apprentice, would tell you that Trump is all about big deals. He doesn’t nibble at the edges of a small deal. He goes in for the big deal, or nothing at all.

A big reason for that is waiting for the big deal typically maximizes the leverage he has. If you give something away first, and the other side doesn’t reciprocate, you lost a portion of your negotiating power. It’s like giving your kids dessert before dinner on the promise they’ll eat both. Sure, it could happen, but if the dinner isn’t finished, you can’t threaten to withhold dessert.

President Trump always looks to maximize leverage, which means pressing on points that do something while ignoring those that don’t mean anything. For example, very early on he called out a number of NATO countries and threatened to withhold US defense money. A critical media made it out to look like he was threatening to leave NATO. Ironically, this worked completely in his favor. The chances of Trump leaving NATO were pretty slim, because it wouldn’t gain much (by the way, the only country to have done so was France when it left the military portion of NATO). But with the media making it look like he would, and a re-surging Russia acting like it wants to re-establish the Soviet Union, many NATO nations upped their funding. Trump won pretty “bigly” in that case.

If you think the whole “negotiating” piece is a sham, you shouldn’t. In fact, Trump has said on many occasions exactly what he’s doing. Here’s a NYT piece from 2016, where Trump was being interviewed by David Sanger and discussing missile defense and Japan:

TRUMP: Or, if we cannot make the right deal, to take on the burden themselves. You said it wrong because you said or — or if we cannot make the right deal for proper reimbursement to take on the burden themselves. Yes. Now, Hillary Clinton said: “I will never leave Japan. I will never leave Japan. Will never leave any of our ——” Well now, once you say that, guess what happens? What happens?

HABERMAN: You’re stuck.

TRUMP: You can’t negotiate.

HABERMAN: Right.

TRUMP: In a deal, you always have to be prepared to walk. Hillary Clinton has said, “We will never, ever walk.” That’s a wonderful phrase, but unfortunately, if I were on Saudi Arabia’s side, Germany, Japan, South Korea and others, I would say, “Oh, they’re never leaving, so what do we have to pay them for?” Does that make sense to you, David?

It’s crystal clear: President Trump will threaten to leave, and then ACTUALLY leave a deal, if it’s not to his liking. That gives him the most leverage to get the other side to comply.

Open Skies is no different. The deal was first brought up in 1955, but was only recently ratified in 2002. It’s supposed to allow unfettered access to anywhere in the signatories countries. The US upholds that end, and as a military member, I’ve been notified before when the Russians plan to fly over an installation I’m working at. Russia began denying access to key areas, including exercise areas and parts of Georgia.

From President Trumps point of view, Russia gets a good deal and the US is slowly losing any advantage for the deal, so he pulled out. Both sides can pull other intelligence assets to make up the loss, but Russia will take a harder economic hit to do that than the US. This gives the US an advantage, and makes a subsequent deal easier. But the next Open Skies deal, if it was to happen, wouldn’t look like the old one. Trump will drive a hard bargain. I wouldn’t be surprised if he demands something completely absurd, like a drawdown of Russian forces from Kaliningrad and the Arctic, with verification flights to ensure compliance.

Now the Open Skies is going away, what’s next? My first thought was Nuclear Test Ban, since the US never ratified it, but the President already beat me to it. Expect the media to really blow this one up, which again plays right into the President’s hand. I would expect him to use this as leverage over China, because he could:

  • Threaten to arm Japan and/or Taiwan with nuclear weapons
  • Threaten nuclear weapons on hypersonic missiles
  • Change US policy and bring back tactical nuclear weapons
  • Negotiate a better nuclear deal with India, to include selling them nuclear submarine technology. Not only would that make China angry, but it would strip Russia of arms sales!

Another deal on the chopping block is the Outer Space Treaty. Trump already announced moon mining. I’d expect him to be looking for partner nations to mine the moon and asteroids. It’s a good chance to bring in non-traditional partners like Brazil, India and Japan that have this technology, but also places like Indonesia and parts of Africa where geography makes launching satellites easier.

The last one I’d expect to see go away is our treaties on drugs. This goes beyond legalizing marijuana. The drug enforcement cost in America is massive and yet is not particularly effective. Legalizing and taxing the drug trade could not only take money away from cartels, but also increase the safety for drug users. I’m actually surprised it hasn’t come up yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Trump proposed big changes to drug control.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

One thought on “Open Skies, Game Theory, and what’s next for treaties

  1. “The drug enforcement cost in America is massive and yet is not particularly effective. Legalizing and taxing the drug trade could not only take money away from cartels, but also increase the safety for drug users.”

    This would be hilarious to watch. For decades, the left has promoted legalization of drugs. Once Orange-Man-Bad supports it, it will become anathema to the left. If Trump wanted to get rid of pooping in the streets in California, all he has to do is pretend he thinks it should continue.

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